Spinal Decompression

Spinal decompression (aka “traction therapy”) can be helpful for those who are experiencing sciatica and/or low back pain. The theory is that the implementation of this strategy increases the space between the vertebrae to take the stress off nerves, provide an opportunity for the disc herniations to return to the middle of the vertebrae, and relax the low back muscles. It can be a helpful tool under the following conditions: your spine is locked into extension (backward bend), your back muscles are really tight; there’s a lot of tension in your hip flexors (or groin area), and if you spend a lot of time standing. Some practitioners will use it to treat specific findings on an MRI or X-ray.

 There are many ways to implement spinal decompression into a stretching routine that ranges from using a machine, clinician and doing it on oneself.

If you go to a chiropractor, physical therapist, or other practitioner, they may put you on a spinal traction machine, after their assessment of your body. It is usually an adjustable table where you lay on your stomach or back (depending on your needs), place a belt around your hips and apply a specific amount of force to provide the force. It would pull along the axis of your spine, so you are getting “elongated”. I like this technique because it can be very precise in regards to the angle and force generated.

Clinician applied traction is also helpful because it allows the professional to made real time adjustments with you as you are receiving the specific stimulus. The challenge is that unless the clinician has years and years of experience, there may be a discrepancy of how much force you need vs what is applied. This technique and machine traction will require you to be on site to receive the care, and can be challenging especially due to access and transportation.

Self generation spinal traction is a great way to provide this stimulus without having to go to a clinic to be cared for. There are two major ways that I usually recommend. The first is resting on a counter or upright surface. If your shoulders/arms are strong enough, you can find any stable surface to lift yourself up as the weight of your own hips will lengthen your back. 

Another option can work if your shoulder’s arm’s aren’t strong enough to support yourself and that is called the supported hip bridge. All you need is a foam roller or other object to lift your hips/pelvis off of the floor. A lot of people will misplace the object into their low back and it can create a pinching sensation, which is not the desired outcome. For self generated traction I usually recommend up to about 90s with deep breathing. If your arms get tired, it can be 3-5 sets of 10 second holds. Ultimately, it’s based on how you feel and respond to it.

Spinal decompression therapy just like stretches and exercises, are just tools. The key is finding out the right tools to provide you relief.

What have you been doing to take care of your spine and pain?


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